Soft Robot Powered By Shape Memory Alloy Spokes

A remarkable new kind of robotic locomotion has emerged in the form of small "robots" that are constructed in the shape of a wheel. The spokes are made of a shape memory alloy; the rim of the wheel is made of an elastic polymer. Here's how they work, starting out with a circular shape at rest:

  1. An electric current is passed through a selected spoke. Shape memory alloy stores energy in the form of stresses in its crystalline structure. The current heats the spoke, releasing this energy, making the spoke shorter.
  2. The elastic polymer rim deforms as the center of gravity of the wheel is altered; the robot moves forward slightly.
  3. As current is withdrawn from the initial spoke, causing it to straighten, current is applied to the next spoke causing it to shorten. The wheel moves forward a bit more.

(From Soft Robot home page)

As this cycle is continued and developed, the wheel-shaped robot moves smoothly forward. The creators of the robot, Shinichi Hirai and Yuuta Sugiyama at Ritsumeikan University in Kusatsu, claim that by combining three wheels perpendicular to each other, a ball-shaped fully steerable robot could be created.

This invention reminds me very strongly of the Smart Wheels from Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snowcrash. The basic idea of smart wheels is that they consisted of telescoping spokes that altered their length based on road conditions, smoothing your ride over potholes and bumps by lengthening and shortening, respectively.

Update: 21-Oct-2016: The first time I read about the idea of a shape memory alloy was in Samuel R. Delany's 1966 novel Babel-17; see the entry for tensile memory polarized matter. End update.

See Robotic wheels that just keep rolling and Soft Robot home page for more information.

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